As Teen Services Coordinator for a large public library system, outreach has always been a significant part of my job. Most of this outreach takes place in our middle and high schools (there are roughly 132 in our service area). We partner with local schools for all sorts of events: booktalking, info lit workshops, early lit seminars for teen parents, back to school nights, and career days. When times were good, we had the staffing to accommodate nearly all requests from schools.
But times are not good. Our staff numbers are down; we’re cutting back in all aspects of service, and outreach is not immune. So the question becomes, where do we make the cuts? Which services survive?’ How can we get the most return on our investment? And, how do we measure the success of our current programs?
I think it’s important to consider several benchmarks of success when partnering with schools. We often look to the number of new library users we sign up, or the rise in circs on the items we booktalk. While those are valuable statistics, I think there is also value in the qualitative. Creating and maintaining good working relationships with school staff; reminding busy teens with a friendly face that the public library is an option; taking advantage of a built-in focus group to ask teens who don’t use the library how we can serve them best. What are we getting out of these programs that ultimately make us better librarians?
I don’t know what the right answers are. For my library, it seemed most vital to continue working with 9th graders as they begin high school. But, that meant that our middle school outreach was cut. We continue to take special requests on as they come in: when schedules allow, we accept; most we must decline.
And while I don’t know what the right answers are for each library system, I do know this: in a time when every dime is accounted for and each service evaluated by the numbers it can generate, we need to be aware of what we are losing from the programs we cut.